It’s hard to come away empty-handed from an empty stadium, but that’s what happened to Galway’s senior camogie players on Saturday night when they handed over their title to Kilkenny in a keenly-fought encounter at Croke Park. For an hour, they had seen the endeavour of the Kilkenny midfield snuff out a decent supply of ball into Galway’s deadly forwards who had set out for a repeat of the goal-fest that sparked last year’s victory.
In the end they only raised one green flag, which was never going to be enough to deny a voracious Kilkenny team trying to avoid a fourth straight decider loss. Although the champions led by two points at the break, this was never a convincing lead given that Kilkenny should have goaled minutes before the whistle.
But the goal had rattled Kilkenny who were still having sleepless nights about Galway’s triple strike in the first half last year, and manager Brian Dowling had to calm them at the break as they feared another such avalanche.
However, if there was Galway optimism in their dressingroom, it had dissipated by the time the next sos uisce came around, after a quarter hour in which the Cats were dogged, winning every ball, passing with more assuredness and building a platform for a victory that seemed only a matter of time in coming.
In contrast, Galway were second best, but remained in the game nonetheless, until a soft penalty swung the pendulum decidedly in Kilkenny’s favour. Denise Gaule who tormented Galway, scoring 1-06 got possession from a glorious handopass, but crumpled under a challenge from Shauna Healy and Sarah Dervan and the penalty was awarded.
Facing just Healy in the goals under the new rules, she buried it in the bottom corner and the Cats were on their way. In the end, there were just three points in it, and although Kilkenny feared a late Galway goal would result in another day out, it never came, and the champions were dethroned. But there will be Galway regret that Kilkenny didn’t lead this game until the 40th minute, and that it was right there for the taking.
Cathal Murray knows what it is like to narrowly miss out and he was gracious at the final whistle.
“In fairness to them, they were the better team. In that time, the quarter after the half-time, they won all the breaks and we had no answer to them in that period.
“I am very proud of the girls when they turned it around and we got back to level. We probably should have won the puck out and they ended up getting the penalty, that was a big, big call for me. I haven’t seen it back, I am not complaining about it. But a penalty needs to be a penalty. He kind of played an advantage first and then ended up giving a penalty.
“But look, the better team won. We are not really performing as well as we can all year. We are kind of grinding out results without being very good in games. Kilkenny were very good today; we knew they would be. We’re just disappointed.
“It looked to be a very good game. There was an awful lot of turnovers. We turned over a lot of ball and turned over a lot of their ball as well, but Kilkenny got the scores when it mattered.
Ball to the forwards
“We didn’t get enough good ball into our forwards. I thought our forward line had them in trouble in the full-back line. That is a credit to Kilkenny as well, hooking and blocking around the middle of the field was really good.
“It was probably a tough year for every team. It was a long year alright. The girls worked really hard during lockdown and came back after the club championship. We were really happy with it.
“You are always waiting for the big performance to come. We were hoping it would be today but it wasn’t to be. We have been great champions and came back to an All-Ireland Final after winning last year and I’m very proud of that,” he said.
But it was that 57th minute penalty goal by Denise Gaule that sealed the deserved victory for Kilkenny to lay the ghosts of previous Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Final defeats firmly in the past.
The Cats had lost the last three deciders in succession since getting their hands on the O’Duffy Cup in 2016 and were in no mood to fall short in this most unique of Championship seasons.
Gaule finished with 1-6 but Brian Dowling had heroines all over the pitch. There were five changes to the team that were defeated in last year’s final by Galway for a variety of reasons but so many of the newcomers stood tall on the most important day of all.
Aoife Doyle was the game’s leading scorer from play with four points and two of those might well have been goals, while Katie Nolan thundered into the fray in the second half, as a supplier and scorer, and Mary O’Connell was noticeable too in an industrious Kilkenny attack that forced countless turnovers, a number of which led to scores.
Among the more interesting match-ups, Davina Tobin was delegated to attend to Orlaith McGrath, with Niamh Kilkenny and Aoife Donohue facing off against Anna Farrell and Walsh respectively.
Elsewhere, Caitriona Cormican was given the task of attempting to repeat her marking heroics on Anne Dalton 12 months ago.
As the game settled, both teams left two forwards inside, the result of which was a clogged middle and one spare player invariably in defence.
It started quickly, Siobhán McGrath marking her late call-up with a score in under 50 seconds, but Aoife Doyle replied with a stupendous point over her left shoulder running away from the posts.
As space become more and more of a premium, the teams were reliant on the place-strikers and both Carrie Dolan and Gaule answered the call as they went into the first water break on 0-3 apiece.
There was a strong belief that the Galway attack carried the superior goal threat but it was Kilkenny who carved out the better opportunities in that regard, while the Kilkenny defence was outstanding.
That said, Orlaith McGrath took a pass from her sister Siobhán to raise the game’s first green flag and that sent Cathal Murray’s charges in at the break leading by 1-5 to 0-6, though perhaps it was significant that Aoife Doyle pointed in response, and it should have been a goal after Walsh went on a careering run before putting her in a one-on-one position.
It was more of the same after the resumption but Kilkenny gradually exerted dominance around the breaking ball. Nolan and Grace Walsh were outstanding and when Gaule hit her only score from play after being found by Claire Phelan in the 40th minute, Kilkenny were in front for the first time.
Dolan levelled quickly but Galway wouldn’t score for another 14 minutes. Doyle and Walsh put two between them but Brian Dowling must have been feeling nervous when Niamh Kilkenny and Dolan, from a free, restored parity.
Then came the definitive moment, as Phelan emerged from a ruck with the sliotar and fed Anna Farrell, who found Gaule with a hand-pass of glorious vision. She went down under a challenge from Shauna Healy and Sarah Dervan and the penalty was awarded.
She picked herself up off the deck to drill an unstoppable low shot past Sarah Healy, following up with a pointed free for the vital breathing space, and though Dolan brought it back to three points from a placed ball, Galway could not create the opportunity for a spectacular escape.
SCORERS FOR KILKENNY: D Gaule 1-6(0-4fs, 1-0 pen, 0-1 45 ); A Doyle 0-4; A Dalton, M O’Connell, K Nolan, G Walsh 0-1 each
SCORERS FOR GALWAY: C Dolan 0-6(5fs ); O McGrath 1-0; S McGrath 0-2; A O’Reilly, N Kilkenny, A Donohue 0-1 each
KILKENNY: A Norris, M Teehan, C Dormer, D Tobin, C Phelan, M Farrell, K A Doyle, G Walsh, A Farrell, A Dalton, M Walsh, D Gaule, M O’Connell, A Doyle, K Nolan. Subs: L Murphy for O’Connell (54 ), N Deely for K A Doyle (60 )
GALWAY: Sarah Healy, T Kenny, S Dervan, H Cooney, E Helebert, Shauna Healy, C Cormican, A Donohue, N Kilkenny, N Hanniffy, A O’Reilly, S Gardiner, O McGrath, C Dolan, S McGrath. Subs: S Spellman for Helebert (51 ), R Hennelly for Donohue (60+2 )
REFEREE: Owen Elliott (Antrim )